The United States may be on the brink of frightening conflict in East Asia. Since The Washington Post reported earlier this week that a U.S. intelligence agency believes North Korea possesses miniaturized nuclear warheads that can fit inside its missiles, President Donald Trump and the North Korean government have traded threats. It is in the interest of neither country to start a conflict that could quickly engulf the region and threaten the lives of tens of millions of people. But Trump has immense unilateral authority to dramatically escalate the situation -- including through the use of nuclear weapons -- and he is known for making snap decisions without fully consulting experts or his staff. And the biggest influence on his thinking may not be our diplomats or generals, but rather the hosts, producers, and bookers of the Fox News morning show Fox & Friends, who seem largely content to confirm the president’s biases and promote his worst impulses.
Trump is obsessed with Fox & Friends, regularly watching the program, tweeting along with it, and praising its hosts. That gives Fox & Friends incredible power, and the show’s hosts use it, apparently tailoring the show to the most powerful cable news viewer in the world. According to a Vox study, hosts Steve Doocy, Ainsley Earhardt, and Brian Kilmeade and their guests “increasingly view their role as giving advice to the president.”
That “advice” is all the more important with the nation careening toward a flashpoint. The president apparently watched Fox & Friends the last two mornings, as the North Korea situation became more serious. What he saw was the program’s hosts and guests repeatedly assuring him that he was doing everything right, and that his critics were not only wrong, but partisans who are undermining the country.
Much of the Fox & Friends discussion has revolved around Trump’s ill-advised, improvised warning on Tuesday that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un will face “fire and fury like the world has never seen” if he continues to threaten the U.S. Democrats and Republicans alike criticized the statement, as did analysts and experts from the U.S. and across the region, with many interpreting Trump’s remarks as threatening a nuclear strike.
But on Fox & Friends, Trump’s statement was viewed as “right on target,” in the words of Kilmeade. The president had been “measured,” according to Earhardt: “He thought about what he was going to say before because he repeated it twice.” “Keep in mind the president's point was North Korea's threats are intolerable,” Doocy said this morning. “Also, at the same time, while he was talking about fire and fury, he did not set any red lines. Was he hyperbolic? Sure. But we know that this president has been hyperbolic in the past.”
The hosts played into Trump’s own natural inclination, portraying all of his critics as enemies of the president -- “Liberal Media Slams President's Rhetoric” and “Media Blasts President's 'Fire And Fury' Message” were two chyrons that appeared on today’s show -- who just want to tear him down and would prefer the U.S. make no response at all to Kim. They warned that the critics were not just wrong but were endangering America. North Koreans “see the Democrats ridiculing the president, and they think the president shouldn’t be taken seriously, which is dangerous,” Kilmeade commented today.
This behavior is fairly typical for the program, which constantly supports everything Trump does and is quick to lash out at his perceived foes. But there’s a real danger in Trump’s rhetoric; as Siegfried Hecker, a former director of the Los Alamos National Laboratory, put it, Trump’s statements only “exacerbate” concerns of potentially “stumbling into an inadvertent nuclear war on the Korean peninsula.” By sending Trump the message that he’s making the right decision and his critics are acting in bad faith, Fox & Friends is increasing the possibility that Trump repeats his behavior, with potentially dire consequences.
Given the unsettling power of the show and the gravity of the moment, I find myself grasping at straws, straining to read the program in a way that could lead the president to avoid the worst. At times, the program’s guests have pointed out that it’s unlikely Kim would attack us because he knows our retaliation would bring down his regime, and that a U.S. offensive against North Korea would have a serious “collateral effect.” The show featured a pastor who says the Bible gives Trump the authority to attack North Korea, but at least it put him up against a priest who urged restraint rather than endorsing the sentiment outright. Even Doocy has pointed out that the danger from North Korea may not be that extreme because of the instability of its missiles.
On the other hand, over the last two days the show’s hosts have also: casually discussed deploying U.S. nuclear missiles to South Korea; said of Kim, “This guy is crazy. We have got to prevent him from killing all of us”; and claimed that if the U.S. strikes North Korea from Guam, it doesn't need to ask South Korea or Japan for permission. “What is scary is how quickly [a North Korean nuke] could make it to you, to me, to your family. Look at this map -- we're going to show you,” Earhardt said yesterday, before explaining how long it would take for an intercontinental ballistic missile to strike New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, and Hawaii.
This is the crack team that has the ear of the president. We are all in a lot of trouble.